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Fundraising profession in focus

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By Mary Teresa Bitti

Time was, if you were good with people and knew how to throw a party you had what it took to be a fundraiser.

Times have changed, says Timothy Burcham, chair-elect of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, based in Alexandria, Va.

“There is a recognition now that to be a fundraiser requires a much broader set of skills and a level of professionalism and training that simply didn’t exist in the past,” he says.

The association has worked for just that type of change and has raised the bar and raised awareness about how central professional fundraisers are to the life of nonprofits and society.

He argues it is charities that lead society, bringing about many of the policy changes needed to advance education, health care and environmental initiatives.

And fundraisers lead the charitable sector.

“If we weren’t out here doing what we do and working with citizens and companies who want to support charitable causes, the burden on the government to meet the needs of our citizens and communities would be huge,” he says.  “At this very moment, fundraising professionals are becoming leaders in societies around the world.”

With more than 27,000 members and 187 chapters throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and China, Burcham’s group is the largest association of philanthropic fundraisers in the world.

From its inception about 40 years ago, the association’s goal has been to advance philanthropy though advocacy, the creation of a code of ethics, and research and education.

Those fundamental goals remain key tenets of the association’s latest strategic plan.

U.S. fundraisers raise more than $250 billion annually, he says, and a key new initiative will be exporting that considerable know-how to other countries.

“Now that governments are pulling back, they are putting more demands on [non-governmental organizations],” says Burcham. “We are guiding professional fundraisers and helping government officials both here and abroad better understand philanthropy and charitable fundraising.”

That goes hand-in-hand with raising awareness and helping people, both in government and members of the public, understand the ethical practice of fundraising.

“The ability for nonprofit organizations to do their work usually falls on the expertise of those of us who raise money for those organizations,” he says.  “Making that link in the minds of policy makers is one of our chief responsibilities.”

That intense focus on public policy will only strengthen with the new strategy, as will a push to bring more people into the fold.

The association recently launched eight collegiate chapters in an effort to encourage students to consider the profession.

Education continues to be a priority, Burcham says, but the 21st century has put a twist on how best to reach up-and-coming fundraising professionals.

“There is a whole generation of people who have never lived without the Internet, cell phones, computers,” he says. “How do we equip ourselves as an organization to deliver content to a generation who use forms of communication and technology that are foreign to us?”

At the same time, fundraisers are dealing with a new generation of philanthropists who have different value systems than previous generations, says Burcham.

While people in the past tended to give out of a sense of duty, he says, today’s philanthropists are seeking to solve a specific problem.

“They want to be more directly involved and see where their money is going,” he says. “So how do fundraisers respond to that?”

At the same time, the profession is going through an evolution of its own, transforming fundraisers from the hired hands they once were to integral players in moving society forward.

“We tend to be very good communicators, problem-solvers, we are good at relationship-building, forging alliances and partnerships, and we are highly technically-skilled in terms of understanding regulatory issues,” says Burcham. “As we become even more skilled as professional, we become that much more valuable to our organizations and we become key figures in managing the future of our organizations.”

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